Just a few days ago I was writing to that it would be six months until I went chasing the lights again. Little did I know that one of the best nights of the season was still in store! Last nights aurora swelled overhead in vibrant shades of purple and blue. I was there to capture the action as the sunlight filtered out of the horizon at 10:30 and didn’t leave until nearly 2:30AM! The clouds rolled in and out through the night, and are evident in these shots.
Since I thought the Lights were all wrapped up for the summer – I guess they got the last laugh!
180 degree panorama looking to the north.
A huge pillar of aurora shoots into the sky.
The “Aurora Borealis Lane” sign is an infamous Fairbanks sign in the Goldstream Valley. Many aurora pictures have been taken over it – now I guess I have mine!
One of my best aurora shots to date! I love the colors and banding in this shot.
As fast I could muster, my batteries, cards, camera, and tripod were quickly gathered for my unplanned trip. With my boots pulled on and winter clothes layered, I hurried to my truck, started the engine, and backed out out of my spot without even letting the engine warm. I justified that it was worth the wear and tear on the vehicle because it was imperative to hurry out of Fairbanks to see what I hoped would be a stunning aurora. My justifications ended up being correct, but I didn’t know I was in for my most memorable night of the aurora season.
During the afternoon, snow had been falling heavily, and was forecasted to do so through the evening with strong winds in tow. Cloud cover was going to hide the effects of a G1 storm from solar winds emitting from a coronal hole. However, in opposition to the forecast, the skies opened up and revealed crimson red and shining green, and resulted in my rapid exodus from the house. Knowing that the aurora can disappear as quickly as it starts, I was anxious to reach my shooting spot on Old Murphy Dome Road.
The wind shook the truck as I parked, and snow laid down during the afternoon was transformed into biting crystals which targeted and stung any open skin; they were catalyzed by 30 mile per hour winds which gusted to 45. However, it was easy to forget the inconvenience of the wind, because my focus was on the aurora which stretched in front of me. Spanning across the sky it shimmered and danced, and patches of the heavens were lit in crimson red. Grabbing my camera, and stuffing some extra batteries into a chest pocket, I descended through thigh deep snow and set up my tripod. I simultaneously clicked my shutter and watched the sky. Aurora photography is a pretty active endeavor. I always make sure to address any “greener pastures”, so as the aurora constantly waxed and waned in front of me I fiddled constantly with camera settings and position.
As I sat and watched the aurora the most extraordinary thing happened : it went completely dark. I do not mean the aurora, I mean the whole landscape. I had not considered how bright the moon was until the clouds smothered its light. In fact, as I watched the dazzling light of the moon reappear, I realized I was on the edge of the weather and cloud front which appeared to be divided by the ridge line of Old Murphy Dome. Low clouds over the ridge line were pushed northeast by the howling winds like race cars, and applied a filter to the moon’s light as they moved past with a kaleidoscopic effect. The moon beams were composed of euphoria, or at least they must have been, because that is what I felt as I watched the soft moonlight dance across the snow like rays of the sun. Wave after wave of moonlight started to the south and passed over me. For ninety minutes I sat on the edge of the frontline, and the clouds provided opposing motion to the fluid dance of the aurora. It was amazing to consider that the solar winds which controlled the aurora, also created the wind on the ground which was still pushing up clouds of biting crystals.
I have never been in a more dynamic nightscape. The pushing wind, racing clouds, dancing aurora, and light of the moon were a pleasure to be a part of. The chance that I would sit along such a dynamic front may never happen again!
A timelapse of being on the “front line” during tonight’s aurora show. Note those moving clouds and the ground-storm:
Below is a gallery of the “snow storm” and the “aurora storm” from today. Be sure to click on images to enlarge them.
4 image stitch of the aurora
A brilliant green curtain of aurora stretches across the moon.
Purple Aurora – More than just red – there are some purples in the top of this aurora!
All shades of the aurora above a whipping spruce top
“Divide” – the aurora is seemingly split in half by the points of this spruce!
A full sky of red and green over Murphy Dome, Alaska
Driving winds pushed up a large snow drift. What a windy night!
While my friends on the east coast are getting pummeled by a record blizzard, here in Fairbanks, Alaska we’ve finally hit “seasonably cold” temperatures. As the mercury dropped On January 25th – 26th to 40 below, the clear skies were coupled with good looking aurora data. The humidity was only at 5% which for me meant perfect clarity to the stars! As I stepped out of the truck I sucked in my first breath of the cold air; it’s always the hardest one! The sting is from both the cold air and the dryness.It bursts into the lungs and bites the nose.
Although this was not my first 40 below night walking around in Alaska, it was the first time I took my camera out into those temps! Shooting at 40 below presented some unique challenges. First, battery life is depressingly short and I could only take about 300 images in contrast to over 1000 on one battery. Second, anything metal is extremely dangerous to the bare skin, and when you are out shooting metal is a common thing! I was carrying a magnesium alloy camera, and aluminum tripod with an aluminum head. Dealing with these items meant wearing liner gloves which resisted the cold like an ant resists a lollipop – I’ve never seen an ant that could resist a lollipop. The result is that I watched the aurora play across the sky in beautiful patterns on several occasions while warming my fingers! Of course, the disadvantage of that is I cannot print my photographic memory, but I still enjoyed a great show as my digits warmed up. Third, clumsy mits made adjusting a cold, stiff tripod head quite difficult! What did I learn: future cold excursions will include a better pair of gloves!
With my petty whines aside it was a glorious night of aurora and aurora photography. I really focused on composition of shots, and although I did shoot a very short timelapse, most of my night was spent wandering through knee deep powder in the black spruces. Through the night the aurora shifted from an overhead band to the northern skies and danced in vibrant colors. Now that I am indoctrinated, I am looking forward to more auroras in the -40 club!
This is likely my best aurora image to date! I was really focusing on composition all night, and this one has all the pieces of a great image!!
Tracks in the snow indicate where I came from as I moved along the firebreak.
The aurora is just starting ‘heat up’ in this great image looking through the black spruces.
Anytime you see pinks in the aurora it means there is quite a bit of activity coming in. The pinks came and went quickly in smothered by curtains of green.
Panorama from 2 images stitched in PS6.
A second image with the sentinel pine – do you like the square crop, or vertical crop better?
Bundled up for that -50 below windchill! Temperatures hovered at about -35 and a slight wind plummeted the “feels like” temp to -50
A lone, scraggly pine tree stands sentinel on along the fire break.
The other side of the story is the temperatures when I back to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I was hoping their thermometer would read an official -40, but couldn’t quite reach that. Although at 8:00 AM the sign read -40, so close enough! I’ve included a screen capture of the temperatures and humidity as a some proof as well 🙂
Last night I was grinning ear to ear, and as I write this the corners of my lips are still curled into a smile. In September, I wrote about the joy of bringing someone out for their first aurora. Last night I was able to enjoy a whole new facet and spectacular joy of aurora photography by hosting an “Aurora Portraits” program through the University of Alaska Fairbanks Residence Life. When we arrived at our destination 10 miles out of Fairbanks the thin layer clouds had just started to burn off. A full moon lit the landscape around us allowing even the naked eye to see to the horizon line 10’s of miles away. A flash of green in the sky around 10:30 indicated to us that the auroral show was just starting to kick off and from that point on the aurora continued to build. As the green shifted and danced in the sky groups and individuals jumped in front of the camera and we proceeded to make memories. Between drinking hot cocoa and warm cider we laughed and enjoyed a beautiful night out. Last night’s aurora will be memorable for its beauty, and its friendship!
Incredibly, these shots are lit only by the moon. The gallery here is a select few images from the night – if you are getting this post via email be sure to click on the gallery images to enlarge them :). I also captured one shot (without people) that I’m particularly proud of. It is featured below this gallery.
The group poses for one of my most memorable portrait shots ever captured!
Getting a little goffy!
Panav doing the “Bolt”
Posing in front of the Aurora with fellow residence life staffers.
Two nights ago I watched the Aurora with someone for whom it would be their last (for awhile), and last night I brought someone out for their first experience of it ever! Both moments are joyous, I believe and this is the tale of two auroras. Both of the nights have been put together into this timelapse which is undoubtedly one of my best to date. I grin at how well the music matches the event and the footage here gives a certain feeling to the urgency of the Aurora.
On September 25th my friend Jonathan and I headed to Eagle Summit (the same place where I timelapsed the solstice) for the aurora. Its location 120 miles north on the Steese Highway provides huge vistas and no light pollution aside from any passing cars. This Aurora was actually Jonathan’s last of his current career in Alaska, so we wanted to make it memorable 🙂
The new moon on the 25th provided inky darkness for a backdrop and the aurora used green and pink ink to sign its signature in the heavens. We were able to enjoy the brilliance of the Milky Way just as much as the Aurora which presented us an excellent show!
On September 26th the hype was high that the Aurora would be booming. In fact, I believe there were shows in Minnesota last night, and may be tonight too. Keep your eyes up!
One of the shots I wanted to highlight was this 30 minute exposure of the aurora. I have been trying to pull of this shot for a very long time, and the moonless night provided just the backdrop! The north star is the non-moving point of this shot. I couldn’t be more happy with it!
I wrangled my housemate Roman to go out for the Aurora with me. He is an international student who had not had the opportunity to see the the Lights before. The show actually burst at 9:30 and presented some great colors including the “watermelon aurora”. To top it off Roman was creative enough to build us a small fire – it was a great night!
The aurora last night was a prime example of what I want to illustrate – why does the aurora flare up? In the timelapse below the aurora dances on the horizon before exploding into one of the best shows I have seen overhead. During my time in Alaska I have tried to glean scientific information on the aurora. Last week I attended a talk by Dr. Akasofu who has been studying the aurora for 50 years, and his talk was focused on the very question I pose here.
So first, the setting. You are on top of a large hill in Alaska and it’s 11:00 PM. As you stare into the inky darkness of the moonless night a green band of light plays in front of your eyes, and it is OK, but it’s not a jaw-dropper. Often time that is the form of the aurora. But suddenly as you watch the green smudge it goes super-nova expanding rapidly in size, color, and intensity. In fact, it’s so intense that the snow is lit up green and even your coat might be. Over your head and on all sides, the aurora builds in greens and reds. Pulses of light can be seen on the far horizon which flow towards you like a wave over your head breaking in unpredictable patterns. Green light shoots in all directions.
Why did that happen? I always assumed the high intensity auroral moments were created by extra energy (solar wind) entering the system. In contrary to that, the research conducted by Dr. Akasofu and other suggests the aurora is a circuit. Incoming solar wind is pushed against the earths magnetosphere where it reacts in an auroral sub-storm. If more energy is input into the system than can be output it starts to build up in a ‘secondary circuit’. The extra energy is stored and builds up within the atmosphere. When the conditions are right the energy is released in ONE pulse of energy causing the aurora to erupt suddenly. It also explains why eruptions last roughly the same amount of time (1 hour) since a finite amount of energy can be built up.
Based on this model, the aurora goes through three phases. Growth which is aurora formed directly by solar winds and is often manifested by low-grade auroras. Expansion which is the unloading of the secondary circuit and direct solar wind. And finally recovery, which is just driven by solar winds.
I hope you’ve enjoyed some of the science of the aurora! I’ll put my disclaimer on the end that I disseminated the information of the talk to you the best I could, and I hope I got it right!